In 9th grade, Peabo Lembethe realized what he was fighting against. It was time to go on a hockey tour and he couldn’t afford to go on the trip.
For the first time since primary school, he was encountered with the concept of “paying to play”.
With the amount of equipment involved with hockey, it’s understandable how many underprivileged children shy away from the sport. You need a hockey stick, you need a ball, you need trainers and you need shinpads. All these expenses add up when you just a kid who wants to play.
It is possible that Lembethe could’ve weighed his options and opted out and chose to play in a less financially demanding sport like football. But guys of that ilk don’t give in that easy.
Luckily, with the help of his coach Guy Elliot, there was a way around this. He came along and he hasn’t missed a tour since.
He has represented South Africa at all levels including a trip to India for the FIH World Cup in 2018. The Sports Gazette caught up with “The General” to look back on his journey so far.
To further his chances of making it as a hockey player, Maritzburg College was the high school that would help him achieve this dream. A prominent school with an even more prominent hockey program. Every year they rank in the top 20 schools in South Africa.
At Maritzburg, Lembethe would represent South Africa at Under 16 and Under 18 level. A feat that is very difficult to achieve. It is also where he finds one of his first role models in the sport, former 1st team player Nick Bérchon.
“I didn’t really know any hockey players, I just playing for fun. When I got to high school, there was Nick and kinda still look up to him. He wore number 8 and that’s why I still wear number 8. Even now in life, he’s done playing hockey. He didn’t really make it but what he is doing with his life is what I want to do as well”.
“I wouldn’t look up to someone I don’t know,” he says.
Lembethe has always attracted people towards him, creating formidable bonds that helped him navigate through a rather cruel game like hockey.
Elliot was also his university coach at the University of Pretoria (Tuks) which continued the Maritzburg College connection. This player-coach relationship elevated Lembethe’s game and belief that he could make it. At 22, he became the first black player to captain the Tuks hockey team.
“I was still young and some guys got injured and then I started starting and cemented my place. When they came back they couldn’t take me out.
“The most thing I learnt there was becoming a better person even away from hockey,” he says.
With a lack of representation in hockey, one of the motivating factors that push Lembethe is he has the platform to inspire other black kids to push themselves into getting hockey and one day be draped in the green and gold of the national team.
He tells me about his cousin that, through him has also started to take interest in hockey. However, there are a few steps that need to be put in place due to the nature of the sport not being played on a bigger scale.
“I have a cousin who goes to a less privileged school but when I’m at home I take him to do some hockey and he’s flipping good.
“I was talking to his mom to try to send him to a high school with hockey. He doesn’t play hockey at school so the only chance he has to play is when he comes to my house. And we play on the grass.”
At the age of 24, Lembethe has already made 28 for the national team which included a debut goal against France in 2018.
With the impact of the coronavirus bringing a halt to the sport, Lembethe was left worried about the impact this would have of him making the Olympic team next year. He decided to move and take his talents to Ireland, playing for the YMCA hockey club